Source: Kyle Broad/Unsplash
Your early experiences with your parents and caregivers influence your relationships later in life. It’s a statement that is often heard in psychology. It makes intuitive sense, but often we don’t realize the full extent of this influence.
Attachment theory, initially proposed by John Bowlby, has helped many people better understand their relationships and how their past influences how they perceive themselves and others. The ideas of attachment theory are widely-cited because they have proven useful in gaining insights into how we relate to others, particularly in romantic relationships. Here I suggest that these same ideas can be applied to how you relate to yourself.
Your relationship with yourself may predict how you relate to others more than you realize.
Let’s review the theory first. Bowlby observed that all mammals, including humans, seem to have an innate drive to seek proximity and tend contact with their caregivers. This is particularly true when we feel threatened or afraid. Based on early experiences in seeking attachment, we develop expectations of how we believe others will respond to us in adulthood.
Those with a secure attachment style are comfortable relying on others and having others depend on them. They have a basic sense of trust and confidence that others will respond to them in a kind matter and that being close to others is safe and rewarding. You’re likely to have a secure attachment style if you recall the majority of your childhood experiences as times when your parents met your security needs and comforted you and allowed you to be close to them, especially when you felt distressed, uncertain, or afraid .
There are two kinds of insecure attachment: avoidant and anxious. Here I discuss anxious self-attachment and will discuss avoiding self-attachment in another blog post.
If you have an anxious attachment style, you have a strong drive for closeness and worry that others will abandon you. You can be a bit clingy, which can, ironically, bring about your worst fear: repelling others away. Anxious types tend to be preoccupied with their relationships, feeling a mixture of excitement and dread. Excitement intensifies when things are going well. Dread looms when you start to worry that you may be suddenly abandoned, dropped, or rejected without warning.
Anxious adults tend to have had childhoods imbued with a lot of unpredictability. Maybe one of your parents ran hot and cold, loving you intensely one minute and snapping at you and ridiculing you the next. Not knowing what might happen next, you learned to monitor your loved one’s actions closely. For anxious types, love life and friendships are intense emotional rollercoaster rides. They live in perpetual crises and drama. If you worry that others might abandon you and you tend to be preoccupied with your love life with lots of highs and lows, you might be the anxious attachment type.
But before we start thinking about these attachment patterns in our relationships with others, let’s consider how these patterns might play out in our relationship with ourselves. Your relationship with yourself is the longest and only truly ever-present relationship you have in life. It’s the foundation of all your other relationships. You have witnessed every thought, dream, feeling, idea, and action you have ever had. No one has had your unique experience of life. Friendships and relationships can help you feel supported and loved, but a compassionate, loving connection to yourself, enjoying your time with yourself, and appreciating who you are even when others aren’t around is the foundation for healthy, satisfying adult relationships.
In the anxious attachment pattern, you prefer to focus on and idealize others instead of looking at yourself and your own behavior. Early attachment experiences involved not being able to predict what the people you depended on might do, so you’re anxious about getting your needs met and focus outward on what others are doing instead of checking in with yourself.
In my book on mirror meditation, I help people see their relationship with themselves from a different perspective. For instance, Kara came to see me for mirror meditation instruction. She had difficulty with traditional closed-eye meditation. Her mind drifted everywhere. At a silent meditation retreat, she went into a panic when she realized how difficult it was for her to suppress the impulse to talk to the people around her. She was quite uncomfortable spending time alone—and even in our session, she found it difficult to tolerate the lulls in conversation. She needed a lot of reassurance that it was OK for her to be there and that I valued her and our work together.
Kara is an example of the anxious self-relating pattern.
She was preoccupied with herself but somehow not really there for herself either. Her attention flew and landed on different people in her life: monitoring her relationships with them, wondering what they would think of her being here with me, how they would do mirror meditation, and what she was going to tell them about her experience of doing it—and how she was going to have to deal with their criticisms and teasing and questioning about it, and on and on.
All this was, of course, all happening in Kara’s mind—her friends, family members, and current love interest weren’t really there! Kara needed to face herself in a big way. Our work together involved helping her track her attention from her and notice the pattern of focusing on others instead of herself. Anxious attachment involves fear of abandonment. An anxious self-relating pattern is about self-abandonment. Instead of caring for yourself when you are feeling upset, you automatically focus on others and how they feel about you.
As Kara sat in front of the mirror, she naturally took other people’s perspectives on her life. She even asked me how I was experiencing it—and she apologized because it must be so boring for me to be with her while she was meditating. I assured her I was fine and happy to support her and encouraged her to keep bringing her focus back to herself.
Kara needed to develop more self-awareness around her habit of focusing on others. And at the same time, she needed to practice self-compassion. Sometimes, when we realize we are doing something self-defeating, we beat ourselves up further, making it even harder to change the habit.
Our work together involved helping Kara stay with herself and noticing her pattern of shifting her attention off of herself onto others and when and why she did it. I helped her track her attention to her to become more aware of the thoughts and feelings that immediately preceded her shift in awareness of her from herself to monitoring someone else. Kara realized she didn’t feel safe with herself—she didn’t trust herself or value her own company very much. I encouraged her to do a regular mirror meditation practice, just focusing on being with herself. Over time her ability to stay with herself and not abandon herself to focus on others grew.
A key to being comfortable with others is trusting yourself and seeing your value in relationships. If you’re anxiously attached, you may believe other people will leave you if you don’t constantly monitor their presence and their moods and reactions to you. So when you’re alone with yourself, you tend to still be in that relationship monitoring mode. It’s essential to consider your loved ones’ feelings and attitudes, but you also have to develop the capacity to take your focus off of them. You can practice this by compassionately coming back to yourself time and time again.